Monday, May 6, 2024

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 21, 2023 - Big Heart Ideology

Speak humbly and carry a big heart. You may or may not recognize that as a reinvention of President Teddy Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy quote to "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” 

The idea behind his foreign policy, commonly referred to today as Big Stick Ideology, was that we should be well prepared, and in ways that would make an opponent take notice, to act justly, never bluff, and always leave your adversary with their dignity intact.

Debating theology with people, or even arguing with those who have different belief systems, benefits from the same advice. Be knowledgeable, and take the time to understand various viewpoints in advance, so that they know you know what you’re talking about. Because even while you might not agree with them, you respectfully understand the perspectives of the views they may hold. 

Never deceive and never behave in a passively aggressive way in the course of your arguments. And should you best them in a contest, treat them with dignity and respect as is inherently due all of humanity.

From my own theological viewpoint, all belief systems on this planet are worthy of dignity and respect. Even the ones with which we heartily disagree. 

Now, this is not to say that we should treat with respect the interpretations of scripture that allow for exclusion, disparagement, or oppression. But the scriptures themselves are rarely responsible for how people choose to interpret them in order to accommodate and justify their own unloving viewpoints. In other words, scripture never tells us to hate people, or even to love them while hating their sins. 

Recently, I engaged in an online discussion about religion with a couple of people who each told me what the ‘truth’ was. It was interesting, because there was no flexibility or humility in their words. They claimed that they knew the one and only truth, and therefore any deviation from their perspective was not only wrong, it was a lie.

There was no sharing of ideas or perspectives. There was only, “I am right and you are wrong because it says so right here in the Bible.” But the Bible, as it stands today, is not an infallible document. In fact, there are so many thousands of opportunities throughout its centuries of oral tradition, translation, re-printing, editing, reframing, and even conscious malinterpretation, much of which today’s believers are entirely unaware, that it cannot be considered a perfect text.

Does that mean it’s not divine? Not necessarily, for humans are not capable of interpreting the divine in its entirety. Therefore none of us has the capacity to say whether or not it is of divine origin or in the care of such divinity throughout the centuries. For all we know, the many various shifts of meaning and context that have occurred throughout history within the words of scripture have some divine purpose in mind. We don’t know.

Which brings us to our version of religious diplomacy as inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s words: Speak humbly and carry a big heart. You will go far.

Things about history are almost never quite as we think they are. For the Buddha, news flash, was not fat, as is often depicted in his statues. Napoleon was not short, at least for his time. His height was quite average. Cleopatra was actually fairly unattractive. And Jesus had short hair.

In fact the familiar image of Jesus with long hair and flowing robes actually comes from the Byzantine era, around the 4th century. Byzantine representations of Jesus were symbolic - they were all about meaning, not historical accuracy. Because they wanted to show Jesus as a Godhead, they used their contemporary imagery to define it, meaning, they made Jesus look like Zeus. They did it, not to tell a lie, but so that people understood the truth as they saw it. But in doing so, they unintentionally corrupted the historical record, which has now been handed down to us, and interpreted as historical fact. The same is true for making Mary Magdalene out to be a prostitute, and Napoleon being short in stature, and the Buddha being depicted as fat.

So much of what we have come to believe about historical figures, both religious as well as political, arrive to us through commentators long after the fact of their actual lives on earth. These commentators frequently misinterpret, or deliberately re-interpret these figures to suit the needs at the moment as they see it.

These misinterpretations are handed down to us as though they are historical fact, when they are decidedly not. Which is interesting considering the idea that people often see the face of Jesus - with long hair - in things like toast or clouds, and claim them to be divine appearances when those appearances resemble little to nothing of the historical figures who are supposedly making the appearance. 

There is no one single truth. Truth is subjective. At least from the perspective of any human being. An objective truth does exist about all of these things, but rarely does our own hindsight view of history enjoy the same. 

So, maintaining humility and respect for the religious or ideological other, while being confident in your own awareness of the mistakes often made in the historical record, gives one an opportunity to listen to other people with a compassionate ear, and a lack of hostility for their perspectives. It gives us the freedom to listen honestly to their fears and concerns hidden in between the lines of the way they frame their beliefs.

Exclusionary, hardline, or unloving interpretations of scripture will always be a lie. But the lie need not be called out so much as it can be compassionately received and responded to with love. That does not mean allowing oppression to continue, but we may have compassion for the fact that the oppressor often knows not what they do.

In short, be at ease with those who believe differently, especially when they are unkind or inhospitable about it. What is true is true with our without any of our beliefs. But our first priority should not be the correcting of the record, it should be the correcting of our approach to our neighbor. Speak softly, carry a big heart, and you’ll go far.

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